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Student helps rebuild hurricane-hit town 30 March 2007

THE Island's Ella Olesen scholar has spent a spring break volunteering in hurricane-devastated Waveland, Mississippi.

Helen Jackson, 22, from Baldrine, is in the USA studying at Idaho University until May after being picked as the recipient of the 2006 scholarship.

She spent a week volunteering in Waveland, a small town of 7,000 people which lies just 60 miles from New Orleans, which Hurricane Katrina famously destroyed in 2005, but is a gruelling 25-hour air and road journey from the city of Moscow, where the university is based.

Helen said: Ella Olesen Scholar Helen Jackson

'I must admit that my first impressions of Waveland were not as bad as I had expected. I later learned that although this initial area was relatively clear, there are still many areas that have been untouched and that some streets are simply being 'deleted', meaning there is simply no address to go back to. The beach areas seemed relatively clear as I had heard that the year before there was still debris from the hurricane in the sea. Much of the area close to the sea was empty, however, which was sad as there used to be rows of beach houses there. I was shocked to learn that the water had reached the height of the trees.'

Helen continued:

'On closer inspection, you could see how the water had snapped the tops off and stripped the trees bare. My first assignment, along with most of my team members, was to clear a guy's yard and paint the outside of his house. It was strange to see that his house and only one other house on the whole street had somehow survived the force of the hurricane whereas the others had not as all that was left were their concrete foundations. The yard was basically just soil, with debris from Katrina still there.'

She said:

'There were still vaguely recognisable bits of shoes, clothing and shells buried in the soil. Trees had begun to root into the soil too and so it was quite tough to pull some of them out. It was rewarding to begin painting his house and see how much better it looked with a new coat of pain and lots of mould protector.
'The second day was spent at what was left of the state park. On arrival, we were shown photos of what the park looked like before Katrina. The photos looked like they were right out of a holiday brochure as the park was covered with luscious plants and trees and had a beautiful wave pool and sunbathing area. Now it was like a barren wasteland where trees were still continuing to fall down daily, 18 months since Katrina had hit.
'The two managers told us it had been one of the most visited parks before the hurricane and now it would take at least five years before it could even open to the public again. The two men told us their experiences of Katrina and said that they were just glad it happened during the daytime as it enabled people to see clearly to escape, thus preventing many fatalities.'

Helen said:

'They were also very bitter at the lack of aid that they had received, claiming that billions has been given to the Katrina relief but it has not gone to the right places. It appears that re-building will be a slow process, and people seem to be monopolising on the shortage of building materials by charging up to 10 times as much for a piece of wood compared to before Katrina. Insurance companies have also been criticised for refusing to pay out as much of the damage was caused by 'flood' as opposed to hurricane, which seems arbitrary to distinguish as the hurricane caused the flooding.'

Helen's third day was spent shovelling dirt and stomping it down to build a disabled ramp for a house until work was abandoned when the heavens opened and the dirt became too heavy.

She said: Helen helps create disabled access to a home

'I then went to a boys and girls' club to help out. The boys and girls' clubs are after school clubs that have become free since Katrina hit so that parents have someone to look after their children until they finish work. At first, it felt like I was not doing much to help by being there but the teacher explained to me that they were so grateful for volunteers as it showed the community that people were willing to care and to help. She explained that it is good for the children to have different people to talk to and that many of them need to share their stories too.
'I was amazed and saddened when she asked the class how many had lost their homes from Katrina and about 16 children out of 20 raised their hands. The following day, it was still raining and so I helped at a different boys and girls' club.'

Helen concluded:

'The final day was spent demolishing a house. It was incredible to think that 18 months since Katrina hit, there are still houses that need to be demolished. The homeowner was visibly moved to see her house, that she had lived in for 20 years, crash to the floor as we took it apart. It was sad to see her reaction but also rewarding to see how grateful her and her husband were of our help. They were optimistic that life goes on and they were not going to let Katrina beat them, despite the fact that many people had abandoned Waveland and not returned.
'This experience has been one that I will never forget. I had such a fun and hard-working team to work with and it felt rewarding to do my bit to help. One week was really not long enough to make much of a difference however as so much still needs to be done down there, but thankfully more volunteers are helping every week and so the process of repairing and rebuilding will continue.'

Helen's blog can be read at http://asui.uidaho.edu/blog/Waveland/

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